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Book cover: The Logic of the History of Ideas

Book Review


The Logic of the History of Ideas

Mark Bevir
Cambridge University Press, 1999
ISBN 0 521 64034 2 (Hdbk.). £37.50, $59.95

Professor Alun Munslow

University of Staffordshire

Mark Bevir establishes the framework and rationale for his tremendously ambitious book on the first page of the Preface (p. ix) when he says he draws on analytic philosophy to study the forms of reasoning appropriate to the history of ideas. He privileges what he calls logical and normative (as opposed to historical, sociological or psychological) analysis later referring to it as a post-analytic philosophy or anti-foundationalism. This procedure is given priority over the ontological hermeneutic tradition (chiefly of Gadamer) and provides his chosen route to the justification and explanation of understanding. He is careful to disclaim that what he is doing is incompatible with that other tradition arguing they can be complementary as different approaches to different issues. In contrast to the Skinner-Pocock school of textual interpretation Bevir argues no single method can logically prise open meaning objectively. Based on this belief is his reading of epistemologists and philosophers of the mind like the later Wittgenstein and Davidson.

In pursuing his substantial objective - to explain the logic of the history of ideas - in Wittgensteinian fashion the author attempts first to establish the reasoning and concepts associated with it. Bevir calls this the grammar of its concepts that can be determined by both deductive and inductive arguments (p. 2). Very quickly Bevir lays his cards on the table with his claim (in the context of his explication of the failings of analytical philosophy) that 'all our knowledge arises...in the context of our particular web of beliefs' (p. 5). Following Rorty, Bevir suggests that especially in its logical-positivist incarnation, all roads lead away from analytical philosophy (and Descartes and Kant), towards anti-foundationalism. As he says, he will 'go along with the anti-foundational (or post-analytic) conclusion that there are no given truths' (p. 6). However, while he eschews 'the given' both empirically and rationally, or any ultimate or privileged representation, he draws back from and positively rejects 'the irrationalist anti-foundationalism found in post-structuralists and post-modernists such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jean François-Lyotard' (p. 6). This is the essential pivot of Bevir's position. In his effort to demonstrate through his version of the logic of the history of ideas, in which he blurs the distinction between synthetic and analytic propositional forms of knowledge, he attempts to construct and walk a middle road.

This middle road is predicated on Bevir's insistence that the logic of a discipline consists in a normative account of its logic or reasoning, and that invoking historical examples of reasoning simply serve to confuse the issue. In his analysis (of the abstract nature of logics) Bevir claims books like Collingwood's The Idea of History and White's Metahistory confuse the matter by ignoring the logic of explanation which is, of course, the logic of justified belief (deduction and induction). What Bevir tries to do, therefore, is provide a single form of justification that will compromise the synthetic/scientific/empirical and analytical/philosophic/rational forms of knowledge. Because this cannot be done by appeal to 'the given' or accurate representation, it can only be done by an appeal to 'the nature of our being in the world' (p.18). This is explained by a rebuttal of Hayden White's position that historians have no rational grounds for choosing one philosophy of history over another. Bevir suggests White's judgement that our reasons are aesthetic/tropic rather than, as White has recently suggested, logico-deductive (White 2000: 393) should lead him to accept that his choice of explanation in fact commits himself to a particular logic (which undermines his scepticism about knowing truthful things).

The strategy Bevir deploys to pursue his aim, which he does with a doggedness that is remarkable, a clarity of thought which is to be much admired, and a belief in his own abilities that is often breathtaking, is to offer chapter length examinations of the concepts of meaning, objectivity, and belief (the objects of study of the historian of ideas and the essential elements of his grammar of concepts), and synchronic and diachronic forms of explanation and what he calls distortions. By these examinations, and through the application of his 'logic', Bevir offers a valuable insight into the nature of historical thinking and its rethinking.

In his first exploration called 'on meaning', he addresses the nature of intentionalism (strong and weak versions) concluding that he has provided the 'core of a theory of historical meaning' that derives from an individual's weak intentionality in their individual utterances/viewpoints (pp. 76-7). How can the historian of ideas reconstruct the weak intentions of agents objectively? How can we really know what the intentions of the utterer were? By opposing objectivism and scepticism (fixed as the extremes of post-modernist relativism and irrationalism and foundationalist objectivism) Bevir concludes there is a middle road based on 'human practice'. This is Bevir's recognition that while we cannot be certain as to the grounds for what is good history, we can be reasonably sure about our knowledge of past intentions - his definition of objectivity - by comparing and contrasting competing rival webs of theories about meaning. We can also relate objectivity to truth because of what he calls his anthropological epistemology, that is, as he say 'because our ability to find our way around the world vouches for the broad content of our perceptions' (p. 109). Again Bevir walks - but more assuredly now - the middle road. Following on from his position that just because historians are implicated in the act of historical knowing, it does not mean they cannot have objective knowledge of the past, Bevir moves to his analysis of belief. Working from his argument that we can justify objective knowing through fallible 'human practice' and his intentional theory of historical meaning Bevir concludes that sincere, conscious and rational beliefs can be entertained if one does not also hold absolutist expectations of truthfulness. Hence we can explain intentionality in terms of the reasonable expectation of individuals holding such beliefs.

Bevir next explains the nature of the forms of explanation deployed within the history of ideas first what he calls synchronic explanation. This he argues is the formulation or description of the webs of belief held by historians of ideas. This he explains with reference to the connections between tradition and agency. Bevir then attempts to explain how people develop, depart from and change their (inherited, traditional) webs of belief historically, i.e., diachronically. Because people have agency the historian of ideas must have an explanation that accounts for the exercise of that faculty. Bevir uses the concept of the dilemma to explain how rational people change their minds and adapt/adopt new beliefs/webs of belief while remaining sincere, conscious and rational. Bevir concludes his study with an assessment of the irrational, unconscious and deceitful distortions of belief that intrude upon any explanation in the history of ideas. He suggests historians can explain such distortions (deception, self-deception and irrationality) by first recognising such distortions and arguing they arose as logical consequences of the grammar of his concepts. Defined as rogue pro-attitudes explained within the folk-psychology of reason, desire or need. People will the distortions.

Bevir concludes his grand tour of the grammar of concepts and forms of explanation that deploy them by applying his logic to his own explanation. This is Socratic undertaking and an interesting procedure, and one I applaud up to a point. In a sense of course it is just a rationalisation within the terms established within the book and it cannot, therefore, be taken a serious reconsideration, and it certainly isn't a refutation of itself. The implications for the broader field of historical studies of Bevir's explanation of distorted beliefs cast as it is within a framework of rational action theory, is interesting in that it is, as I am sure many historians will point out, a statement of the blindingly obvious (p. 316). Historians 'know' from their own experience of folk psychology how deviancy can be explained and used to explain people's actions at a 'common sense' psychological level. Do historians need to be told how people behave in the ways described and codified by Bevir?

In his rejection of the given - empirical or rational - Bevir pursues his own middle of the road logic or grammar of those concepts operating in the discipline against a background of webs of beliefs. This activity of the justification of meaning and explanation is neither material nor linguistic, it is conceptual. The obvious question is whether you can have a logic or grammar of the concepts used in a discipline, especially history. The other question is, assuming you can have a grammar, has Bevir described it? Are there others? Indeed it is possible to offer detailed criticisms of each of the concepts as defined by Bevir in his grammar. Does he, for example, give adequate attention to Nietzsche's critique of objectivity, i.e., perspectivism? Why should we accept the basic premise of rational action theory? Bevir would, of course, say not to means falling into the miasma of post-structuralism and that is irrational.

Many historians will share Bevir's anti-foundational, liberal and non-reductionist position. Almost certainly the majority of historians would agree with him that our existence is affected/mediated by our concepts and that there is no absolute extra-discursive ground for knowing, that all texts are interpreted within the skein of our webs of ontological commitments, and they would certainly endorse his dismissive attitude toward the 'irrationalism' of postmodern approaches. What would make them less happy is his rejection of the correspondence theory of knowledge. These historians - what elsewhere I have called constructionist historians - would be unhappy with his assumption of rational action theory as the centre of historical understanding. Placing the individual making rational choices in a chaotic world at the centre of historical explanation is for most of them, frankly, unconvincing. To then build a whole logic of historical explanation on it is juvenile. To be more charitable, however, Bevir's position is simply very unfashionable. At worst it denies the role of structure, power, and the embedded nature of irrationalism in both motivation and argument (not as a descent from the ideal but the everyday practice of historical agents) in understanding and explaining the past. I suspect the majority of historians would say Bevir's efforts, though clever, could only be written by a non-practitioner or, even more alarmingly, by the naïve reconstructionist members of the profession.

Central to Bevir's undertaking is the very important question of agent intentionality. He seems to be defending the idea (hermeneuticist in inspiration) that we can accurately interpret the author's meaning when they wrote a text. He roundly attacks Pocock's and Skinner's view that we should take into account context and language rather than authorial intention in doing this (semantic as opposed to hermeneutic meaning). Bevir comes down on the side of 'weak intentionalism' that is the middle of the road position. So it is he establishes his ramparts against all-comers from post-structuralists to materialists. Bevir is not afraid of a fight. This is a good thing as the flaw in his argument (which can be pointed out by all and sundry - and no doubt will be) may be that his equation of meaning with a weak (or strong for that matter) version of intention. In a nutshell, it is possible to argue that just because an utterance is made, it need not necessarily express an intention. Knowing the intention of the author is of no use in determining what the text means unless you accept that intention does equate with meaning. Arguably, in history we have to make up our meanings unless we believe they pre-exist in the data/text and we can, therefore, 'discover' them.

For all its complexities and what for many will be his failings, not least Bevir's unqualified belief in rationalism over irrationalism, sincerity of insincerity and the conscious over the unconscious, the questions his book addresses are important to historians in their everyday work. Of course, those historians who harbour an anti-theory bias will never read it. The very title will put them off. Locate 'logic', 'history' and 'ideas' together in a book title and it is the kiss of death so far as most jobbing historians are concerned. For the majority, I fear, being a good historian does not mean knowing anything about logic, much less the history of ideas. But such a pre-judgement would be quite wrong. Bevir's explorations are useful reminders of the complex nature of agent intentionality, objectivity and belief. From the middle of the road Bevir is able to offer assistance to those who want to believe in the (more or less) accurate knowability of the past. Of course, if you walk down the middle of the road you are also very likely to get knocked over. But I think Bevir knows that and is ready to take the risk.

March 2001

Note: A detailed examination of The Logic of the History of Ideas is to be found in Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 2000, 4.3: 295-350.

  1. White, Hayden (2000), 'An Old Question Raised Again: Is Historiography Art or Science?', Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 4.3, 391-406.
  2. Munslow, Alun (1997) Deconstructing History, Routledge: London and New York. February 2000

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